Statement made on 26 November 2008 by Senator James Cowan
Hon. James S. Cowan (Leader of the Opposition):
Honourable senators, on behalf of the official opposition in the Senate, I begin by extending our best wishes to Her Excellency the Governor-General as she continues gracefully and admirably to fulfill the responsibilities of her office. I know I share the sentiments of all Canadians when I say how proud I am that she is the Queen's representative in Canada.
Last week, I extended my congratulations to His Honour and to my leadership colleagues on both sides of the house, and I look forward to working closely with them in the spirit of collegiality in the business of this chamber on behalf of all Canadians.
I commend Senator Meighen and Senator Champagne for their valiant defence of the Speech from the Throne. Their words would have us believe that all we had to do was gaze in admiration as the government unerringly leads us all to the promised land.
If only that were so, but given what we saw during the last Parliament, you will forgive me if I am a little skeptical.
Since we last met, Canadians have been subjected to the most expensive election campaign in Canadian history, at a cost of upwards of $350 million. While it is true that the Conservatives were returned to office with a strengthened minority and the Liberals suffered significant losses, the composition of the other place is not much changed. The election was marked by unprecedented negativity and, not unexpectedly, the lowest voter turnout in our nation's history. Only 59.1 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots. Just over one third of those, and only 22.2 per cent of eligible voters, supported the re-election of the government. I would suggest that none of us can draw much satisfaction from these results.
Prime Minister Harper, in rationalizing his decision to call an election one year in advance of the date prescribed by his own fixed election date legislation, suggested that Parliament had become dysfunctional.
Honourable senators, someone said to me the other day that it is not Parliament that is dysfunctional — it is the politicians who work there that are dysfunctional. It seems to me there is an uncomfortable amount of truth in that statement for us all.
Nevertheless, the voters have spoken, and, as democrats, we accept the results, but we must also learn the lessons. Canadians expect — and have the right to expect — that their politicians will rise above partisanship and address the pressing problems facing this country.
Honourable senators, we on this side of the chamber have been eagerly looking forward to the start of this session. We will fulfill our constitutional responsibilities by being an active, aggressive and progressive opposition. We intend to carefully scrutinize the government's legislative program and will propose legislative measures of our own. Where we find fault with the legislation, we will propose amendments to improve it. If, on the other hand, we find favour with the government's proposals, we will accept them. Always, our guide will be the public good.
Our leader the Honourable Stéphane Dion last week set out our approach as it relates to the serious issues facing the economy:
Demanding strong action from the government on the economy will be our primary task. While reviewing every government action we will ask three key questions. First, will the government proposals protect and create jobs? Second, is the government doing all that it can to safeguard Canadians' pensions and savings? Third, of course, are the government proposals fiscally responsible? Government proposals for the economy that meet these three tests will be supported by the official opposition.
While we congratulate the government on its return to office, we are very conscious that Canadians did not see fit to return it with their much desired majority. On the contrary, Canadians held this government to a minority. Indeed, while it is true that it is a strengthened minority from the previous Parliament, in fact, fewer Canadians voted for the Conservative Party this time than did so in 2006. By refusing to give the government a majority, Canadians have directed us as clearly as they can and in the best democratic tradition by their votes that it is their wish that we be a strong opposition.
It is not and never has been our intention, notwithstanding the musings of our colleague Senator Brown, to obstruct the government's program for purely partisan purposes. However, we do intend to fulfill our constitutional responsibility within the Canadian parliamentary tradition, carefully examining and assessing that program, listening closely to the views of interested parties and using all of our skill and experience to ensure that the legislation passed by this chamber is the best that it can be for Canadians. We will respond to the demands for the public good but not to the dictates of artificial deadlines. We take our responsibilities seriously, and we intend to carry them out to the best of our abilities.
During the election campaign, there were suggestions that a re-elected Conservative government would treat all votes on any matters set forth in its election platform to be confidence motions. The Senate, though not under our Constitution a confidence chamber, would be expected to defer to the government's demands by threats to members in the other place of another election. The assumption underlying this position is that the Canadian electorate gave the government a mandate to implement its platform and all steps to that goal would, therefore, be considered confidence matters.
While there was much debate during the election campaign about whether Canadians should return a Conservative government with a minority or a majority, it cannot be said that there was anywhere near the same level of attention given to the details of the Conservative platform. Indeed, that platform was not even released until less than a week before election day and only after some 1.4 million Canadians had already cast their votes in advance polls.
Let us be very clear: This government cannot take the position that it has a mandate from the electorate to implement everything set forth in its platform. Indeed, some 62 per cent of Canadians voted for a party and a platform, if you will, other than the Conservative one.
Let me quote from an editorial that appeared in The Globe and Mail on September 24 addressing the remarkable assumption that bills in this new Parliament would once again be put to the opposition as a "take-it-or-leave-it proposition":
This is not how a minority government should work. Confidence votes are to be limited to money bills and measures at the core of the government's agenda — not routinely invoked by a prime minister whenever he wishes to put pressure on other parties to support less important bills. If Canadians elect the Conservatives with another minority, they will be explicitly saying that they have not entrusted them with full power over the legislative agenda — that they expect them to try to work with the other parties.
The Harper government rejected this approach in the last Parliament. It refused to even consider amendments proposed by this side in good faith and based on serious committee study. The Harper government obstructed the parliamentary process in committees in the other place and generally made a mockery of Canadian parliamentary tradition.
I hope with this election we have ushered in a new era. I go so far as to suggest that the government now adopt the moniker, "Canada's New Government," to announce that it will do things differently this time around because business as usual as defined and practiced by this government is just not on. Canadians expect better, they demand better and, frankly, they deserve better.
Honourable senators, we are at a time of historic change in the world. We face great challenges, but, amazingly, there is a spirit of great hope. All of us watched the recent election in the United States and witnessed the determination and pride of our American neighbours as they elected the first African American to be President of their country.
What stood out for me was the President-elect's message of the need to work together, not to be mired in political partisanship, but to dare to do things differently. I was struck by his promise to the American people, repeated on election night in his victory speech:
But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.
He went on to say:
Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.
I regret that similar words and sentiments were nowhere to be found in Mr. Harper's victory speech on October 14 or in his government's Speech from the Throne.
I believe Canadians want us to dare to do things differently. Canadians want and, indeed, expect us to work together for the public good, so I invite the government to throw out its manual directing Conservative parliamentarians to disrupt and obstruct committee proceedings when they disagree with the direction of that work.
I challenge the government and its supporters in Parliament to dare to listen, especially to those who disagree. I am certain we will disagree. Our views of the public good will, at times, differ remarkably from yours, but I promise you that we will listen carefully to you, and we expect you to give our views the same respect, for indeed, we all seek to do what is the best for Canadians.
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